- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Three months after surgery to repair a leak in his aortic valve, Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas said he intends to return this season.

Thomas’ press conference came six days after he was cleared for noncontact drills and two days after the seven-year veteran paid the Wizards a surprise visit during Saturday’s practice.

Thomas must wait for the Wizards’ doctors to clear him before he can resume practicing with the team.

“This is something new for them, so they’re being a little bit extra cautious, which is understandable, but I’m pretty much ready now,” Thomas said. “They just gotta do all the tests they feel necessary, and then I’ll be back with the team.”

Said coach Eddie Jordan: “There’s no real timetable. We just have to see how his endurance has to build up, and his legs have to get used to playing and keeping the pace of NBA game, and he’ll have to fit in with the chemistry of how everything is going.”

Thomas, 29, attended training camp with the Wizards in October ready to compete with Brendan Haywood for the starting center spot. But the team held him out of the first practice when his physical showed a heart irregularity.

Thomas, who averaged 6.1 points and 5.8 rebounds last season, says he learned in middle school he had a heart murmur and grew accustomed to playing with it. He assumed he would have surgery to correct the leaky valve when he was in his “50s or 60s.”

“I felt fine,” Thomas said of his condition before the surgery. “But before I had the surgery, my doctors showed me there was a difference in some of my numbers, and it was a good time to have the surgery then.

“If I had’ve waited longer, the more complicated the surgery would’ve been and the more risks there would’ve been for different parts of the surgery.”

Thomas had surgery Oct. 11 at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was released about eight days later. He returned to his home in Maryland to begin rehabilitation.

Early on, he was extremely weak, unable even to lift his 2½-year-old son, Malcolm. He took 10-minute walks and then was so tired he had to go back to sleep. But the walks gradually grew longer and turned into jogs on the treadmill and then runs.

Earlier this month, Thomas spent 10 days at IMG Academies, where he was monitored while training hard and then received clearance to resume basketball drills.

Thomas expects to contribute to the Wizards once team doctors and coaches give him the OK, but he understands it will be a gradual process.

“I’ll just come back and do what I do — come out, play hard, have a defensive presence, play physical inside and just blend in with what everyone else had been able to accomplish.”

Thomas shared minutes last season with Haywood. Haywood started 49 games while Thomas started 32, most of them in the second half of the season. The shared playing time created tension between the two, and the centers fought three times in practice during the last two seasons.

But Thomas called his tussles with Haywood “water under the bridge.”

While he plans to compete just as he has in the past, he acknowledges Haywood is having a career year, averaging 10.4 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, and that third-year player Andray Blatche has served as a solid backup (6.3 points, 4.7 rebounds).

All of the Wizards players, including Haywood, said they were happy and encouraged to see Thomas return.

Haywood also said he’s not worried about Thomas’ return disrupting the team’s chemistry or his playing time being reduced.

“I’m glad the guy’s back,” Haywood said. “It’s great, but we have something good going here. I think he knows that. I think everybody respects each other here. I’m gonna go out there play hard. He’s gonna play hard.

“And the minutes are gonna fall where they may. Right now we have a pecking order — myself, Andray Blatche, then whoever, and if at some point he works his way in, then so be it. But right now that’s how it’s established, and that’s how I expect it to continue to be.”

Jordan expects a smooth transition, however.

“There’s a rotation, but he is a veteran, so he’s certainly a voice in our locker room,” he said. “He’s a guy we will respect because he’s gone through the NBA wars, and we’re gonna give him all the time he needs to get back to being one of our top guys.”



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